San Antonio City Council on Thursday unanimously approved a package of zoning changes aimed at managing development surrounding the four Spanish colonial missions along the San Antonio River on the city’s South Side.

Dozens of properties in the so-called World Heritage Buffer Zone were “downzoned” – meaning any new business or structures there will be restricted to lower intensity uses – and others were given mixed-use zoning that allows for more flexible development. Click here to learn more about the changes and download maps of the properties.

Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3), whose district includes the missions, praised City staff and citizens for their work in the rezoning process and noted the long list of individuals and organizations that came out in support of the zoning.

“[City staff] have done so much public outreach here,” she said. “To say it was otherwise is just not true.”

Prior to Council approving the package, Viagran amended it to exclude nine properties on Roosevelt Avenue from rezoning and give one property a different designation. Some property owners had recently come forward to talk with district representatives, a spokesperson said. But not all of the estimated 35 or so property owners who opposed the changes were granted exclusion.

Most organizational stakeholders in the area, including the San José Neighborhood Association, Lone Star Neighborhood Association, National Park Service, San Antonio River Authority, San Antonio Conservation Society, and others support the changes. Several representatives spoke on Thursday.

The missions’ “outstanding universal value” will be protected by these changes, said Susan Snow, archaeologist at San Antonio Missions National Park, who spoke on behalf of the National Park Service.

City Council heard almost two hours of community testimony.

Several property owners opposed zoning changes for their and surrounding properties because they were concerned it would decrease their property values and ability to improve and expand their businesses. Some neighborhood groups, such as the Hot Wells Mission Reach Neighborhood Association and Villa Coronado Neighborhood Association, spoke against the changes on Thursday.

It is unfair to downzone some locally-owned properties and let others owned by larger corporations or developers have more flexible zoning, said Sandra Torres, whose family owns a business near the Hot Wells ruins, soon to be a County Park. With these changes, Torres is unsure if her business can be passed “on to our children and our children’s children.”

Only if a business closes for more than one year would the new zoning be enforced, said Colleen Swain, director of the City’s World Heritage Office.

“Businesses will continue to operate as they have always operated,” Swain said, explaining that a zoning change only alters what can go in a business’ place should it close.

Other opponents, such as Brady Alexander, president of the Hot Wells Mission Neighborhood Association,  said the City should have isolated the more controversial changes and discussed them one-by-one instead of lumping them in with the package approved Thursday. He also pointed to several small businesses that were rezoned while chain convenience stores and fast-food restaurants were not. Some of the ones he cited were ultimately excluded from the zoning package. Previously, other properties on Roosevelt and near Brooks were removed because of strong opposition and conflicts with other ongoing community plans.

Zoning designation determines what kind and the intensity of activity – residential, commercial, industrial – can occur on the site.

Several properties near the missions zoned MF-33, which allows up to 33 housing units per acre, are now zoned R-6 for single-family homes. Single-family homes were already on most of those properties, so the zoning change prevents higher-density housing from being built there in the future, City officials have said.

Several lots, some of which are vacant, were zoned for high-intensity uses – industrial or dense residential – and could be developed into buildings that don’t fit into the community’s plan, said Mission San José Neighborhood Association President Terry Ybanez.

A similar planning and rezoning effort by SA Tomorrow currently underway citywide could take years. Ybanez said. “We are planning for the future of our neighborhood now … not in 2020.”

The package of changes is the result of several symposia about how to best support the missions and surrounding communities that led to 11 land-use amendments and updates to four area community plans approved by City Council in 2016. The City has hosted more than 50 public meetings and other opportunities to provide feedback, Swain said.

But some property owners in the area, many of whom are members of the Alliance for San Antonio Missions activist group, feel that they’ve been left out of the process.

Carroll Brown, spokesperson for the Alliance, said many public meetings didn’t allow public comment as City organizers provided notecards on which to provide feedback instead.

When there are hundreds of people at a meeting, Swain told the Rivard Report last week, comment cards are simply the more efficient way to collect feedback. Swain and Viagran have said they have had countless meetings with property owners and other area residents.

The Alamo and four other Spanish colonial missions were designated as World Heritage sites in 2015, and there has been growing investment in and concern about the area ever since. The neighborhoods surrounding the missions, some blighted and low-income, could lose the culture and “intangible heritage” that contributes to the missions, some say. However, some missions, especially Mission San José, lack amenities typical of World Heritage sites such as restaurants and pedestrian and bicycling infrastructure, Swain said.

The City will “respect established neighborhoods” near the missions, she said, by balancing those interests with the increased number of visitors and businesses in the area.

The vote to approve was unanimous, but Councilman Clayton Perry (D10) was absent.

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and mental health. She was the San Antonio Report's...